The Trouble with Sombreros

Charro Days Festival, Brownsville, Texas, 1997
Alex Webb/Magnum Photos
Charro Days Festival, Brownsville, Texas, 1997

In early September, the novelist Lionel Shriver gave a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in which she expressed her hope that identity politics and the concept of cultural appropriation would turn out to be passing fads. During her lecture, several audience members walked out in protest, and the text of her address has sparked a controversy that has spread across the Internet and the British and American press. It has stoked a debate already raging on college campuses, in the literary world, in the fashion and music industries, on city streets, and in other areas of our social and political lives. But while this debate has raised important issues—for writers and the public—both Shriver and her critics may have overlooked some of its larger implications.

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission” is the definition of cultural appropriation that Shriver quotes from a book by Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University. The topic is a complicated and sensitive one, and Shriver’s first mistake, I think, was to ignore that complexity and sensitivity by adopting a tone that ranged from jauntiness to mockery and contempt. I can think of only a few situations in which humor is entirely out of line, but a white woman (even one who describes herself as a “renowned iconoclast”) speaking to an ethnically diverse audience might have considered the ramifications of playing the touchy subjects of race and identity for easy laughs.

Shriver began with the story of a “tempest-in-a-teacup” that erupted after two Bowdoin College students hosted a tequila party and gave out miniature sombreros “which—the horror—numerous partygoers wore.” The hosts were censured for “ethnic stereotyping” and threatened with removal from their student government posts; their guests were criticized in the student newspaper for lacking “‘basic empathy.’”

“I am a little at a loss,” Shriver said,

to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero—a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim. My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travels, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriate the souvenir to play dress-up. For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some lederhosen, pour themselves a weissbier, and belt out the Hofbräuhaus Song.

But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandal is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

Like much of Shriver’s talk, this paragraph contains a kernel of truth encased by a husk of cultural and historical blindness. It seems clear that one part of the fiction writer’s job is “to step into other people’s shoes.” But to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a hat is more than just a hat. Sometimes it is a symbol—and a racist one, at that.

For many Mexicans, the sombrero (now worn almost exclusively as a costume accessory by mariachis) perpetuates the myth of the backward, old-fashioned campesino, a throwback to an earlier century, chattering away in the heavily-accented, high-pitched, rapid-fire rhythms of Speedy Gonzales, the cartoon mouse, in his big yellow sombrero. In the past one more often saw—painted on dinner plates and tourist knick-nacks, embroidered on felt jackets—a caricature of a Mexican peasant dozing off, drunk or just lazy, leaning against a cactus, his face obscured by an enormous sombrero. And this is an unfortunate moment in which to mock a college for trying to reassure its Mexican and Latino students: Donald Trump has yet to call for the mass deportation of lederhosen-wearing, weissbier-swilling German-Americans.

Even as Shriver insisted on the writer’s right to imagine and empathize with people of different classes and races, she appears to have had some trouble empathizing with the people in her audience. It’s not hard to understand why the members of minority groups have grown impatient with the inability or unwillingness of governments and societies to confront the harsh realities of racism, of economic and social inequality, of de facto segregation. Nor is it difficult to find egregious examples of cultural appropriation: the sorry spectacle of feather bonnets and fake turquoise jewelry for sale at Native American fairs staffed and attended solely by white people. White musicians who get rich performing the songs of black soul and blues singers who live and die in poverty. The fast-food chain Taco Bell, which purveys a bastardized form of Mexican cuisine while paying its workers (who, in the West and Southwest, are often Mexican-Americans) wages that average between eight and nine dollars an hour. 

Choosing to ignore the real inequities that exist, Shriver takes a familiar tack often used on Fox News: trivializing valid concerns by ridiculing their most absurd manifestations and extreme proponents. She cites the Oberlin students who (forgetting that our country has long functioned as a cultural and culinary melting pot) protested a piratization of Japanese culture: serving sushi in the school dining hall!

Shriver is on firmer ground when she discusses the attempts, by critics of cultural appropriation, to question the power and validity of the imagination, to limit what writers of fiction can and should write. And here she makes an important and legitimate point. She refers to a number of novelists (Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene) whose work would never have existed if they had been prevented from inventing characters who were “Real Foreigners.” She mentions Dalton Trumbo, who did not share the experience of the severely disabled hero of his 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun.

In fact she could have found even more pertinent examples. Should Harriet Beecher Stowe have been discouraged from including black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a book that helped persuade its audience of the evils of slavery? Should Mark Twain have left Jim out of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that, more fully than any historical account, allows modern readers to begin to understand what it was like to live in a slave-owning society? Should someone have talked Kazuo Ishiguro out of writing The Remains of the Day, the beautiful novel whose protagonist—a white butler in England before World War II—presumably shares few surface similarities with his creator? Should immigrant writers and writers of color be restricted to portraying their own communities?

Should the novelist and short story writer Susan Straight, who is white but who has spent almost all her life in the black neighborhoods of Riverside, California, be told that she cannot draw on her observation of her friends, neighbors and family members, but should instead portray the white society about which she knows less? What would modern art be like if the Impressionists and later Van Gogh had not been so profoundly affected by Japanese woodblock prints, or if Picasso and Braque had not been drawn to the beauty and sophistication of African art? Should Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean who lived mostly in Mexico, not have focused, in the third section of 2666, on an African-American journalist, or set the novel’s final chapters in Europe during World War II?  Don’t we want different cultures to enrich one another? It’s not the responsibility of art to make us better people, but some works of art can (if only temporarily) increase our compassion, sympathy, and tolerance. Reading Chekov, we are amazed by his range, by his ability to see the world through the eyes of the rich and the poor, men and women, the old and the young, city dwellers and peasants. But had he caved in to the pressures of identity politics and only described characters of his own gender and class, few of his six hundred or so stories would have been written.

If we accept the idea that art in general (and fiction in particular) can tell us something about what it means to be human, are we saying that art should only tell us what it means to be a certain sort of human—one who thinks and looks like us? Why would we read the classics, populated by characters in circumstances so unlike our own? If we insist that literary characters mirror our appearance, problems and habits, we feed into a culture of narcissism in which everything is (and must be) about us. The only beauty that matters is the resolution of our image in the mirror.

Even if we acknowledge (as Shriver does not) that we live in a society in serious need of repair, it’s still possible to ask whether the protest against cultural appropriation constitutes the most useful and effective form of political activism, whether it addresses our most critical and pressing problems. We could insure that not a single rock star or runway model ever again wears corn rows or dreadlocks—and not remotely change the fact that a black person with the same hairstyle might have trouble finding a job. (In a Twitter feed posted and reported in The New York Times after Marc Jacobs sent his models out onto the runway in faux dreadlocks, one black woman said, “An unknown black man/woman has dreads, it is assumed that they smoke and/or are unprofessional. Marc Jacobs has a model with dreads, it’s boho chic.”) We could prohibit writers from inventing characters whose backgrounds differ from their own without preventing even one young black man from being shot by the police.

Misdirecting our indignation, we let powerful individuals and institutions get away with murder while we fight enemies (academics and novelists) whose power is marginal at best, who may reflect prevailing prejudices but whose work, like it or not, hardly affects the larger society. Surely, corporate greed and the governments that have allowed our schools and health care systems to degenerate are more accountable than the authors of short stories. Though we all share the responsibility for the society in which we live, poets and painters are hardly to blame for the fact that we live in a racist country—or for having gotten us into the economic and political mess we are in.

In fact Shriver appears to blame liberals for, among other things, the ascendancy of Donald Trump, whose popularity she describes as a “backlash” against “the left’s embrace of gotcha hypersensitivity” and whose followers are “people who have had it up to their eyeballs with being told what they can and cannot say. Pushing back against a mainstream culture of speak-no-evil suppression, they lash out in defiance, and then what they say is pretty appalling.” Is she really suggesting that Trump supporters are yelling “nigger,” “bitch,” and “fag” at rallies just because elitist eggheads have for so long told them not to? Couldn’t it be more reasonably argued that Trump has exploited sensitive issues (racism, immigration) to attract media attention and gain the support of those who feel left behind by a changing society? It’s worth noting that Shriver’s own visibility has greatly increased in the aftermath of her Brisbane lecture.

Shriver ended her speech with a call to arms. “Most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.…We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats—including sombreros.” We may agree, at first. But on reflection, we might hope that fiction writers and the rest of us will think harder—about racism, stereotypes, history, immigration and social justice—before, as Shriver ultimately did  during her speech, donning that wide-brimmed Mexican hat.